Corporate 100
Don’t Wait to
Work on Retention
Prevention strategies for
employee burnout
By Alexandra Kay
DragonTiger iStock

ntil AI takes over every job, humans will have a role in the workplace. Unfortunately, humans are, in fact, human and subject to the inherent challenges of humanity, such as mental funk that impedes productivity. A recent Gallup report titled “Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures” found that 76 percent of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28 percent say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work. Further, mental health affected job performance for nearly half the US workforce, says the 12th annual Aflac Workforces Report.

“There are many factors that contribute to employee burnout,” says Noël Gabler, vice president for corporate relations at Global Credit Union (formerly Alaska USA). “Increased workload due to high turnover or employee roles and jobs not being defined. This leads to longer hours and challenges maintaining a work/life balance.”

The labor shortage can also be a factor, when more pressure is placed on existing employees to take on extra tasks because of vacancies. According to Gallup, other causes of employee burnout include unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure.

Employees experiencing burnout are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day, 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room, 13 percent less confident in their performance, and 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job, according to the Gallup report.

Employees experiencing burnout can also make poor decisions and lose their desire to perform well. All these things can hurt businesses. Fortunately, there are several things that good managers and businesses can do to combat employee burnout—or prevent it from happening in the first place.

Improve Work Culture
“A toxic culture can lead to burnout and people not wanting to get up and go to work in the morning,” says Emily Berliner, founder and COO of EBO Consulting in Anchorage, a company that provides business development services. “If you have that employee with a bad attitude… it just seeps out and everyone thinks they can act that way.”

And according to O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, culture can cause a company to either thrive or suffer. The company started as a manufacturer of jewelry, trophies, and awards, and that expertise in uplifting spirits led to diversification into consulting services. Internal research found that poor workplace culture leads to a 157 percent increase in burnout rates. The seeds of dysfunctional culture can include poor leadership, lack of purpose, no opportunity for growth or development, not feeling appreciated, and a poor work/life balance.

To improve workplace culture, an O.C. Tanner resource guide outlines seven practices companies can take.

  • Build strong employee relationships. Leaders play a large part in shaping culture, and good leaders contribute to a stronger, better workplace culture. Good leaders should “cheerlead their employees” and get to know them on a personal level. “When this happens, employees feel more appreciated and supported and feel like they belong in an organization,” according to the resource guide.
  • Connect people to a purpose. Communicate to employees clearly and frequently about how their work contributes to the organization’s purpose. “When employees see reminders of their organization’s purpose throughout the workplace, they are 30 percent more likely to believe their organization inspires employees to work towards a common goal,” says the O.C. Tanner guide. This is something Global Credit Union regularly practices. “We try to engage with our employees through communications and activities to help connect them with the organization, building morale and a culture that helps our employees thrive,” says Gabler.
  • Encourage recognition of employees. “Seventy-eight percent of employees say they are highly engaged when they feel strong recognition from their organizations,” according to O.C. Tanner data. Research shows engaged employees are happier at work and more willing to do tasks for the good of their employer organizations. They’re also less likely to call in sick or leave their jobs, which are two signs of burnout.
  • Create positive employee experiences. Give employees the opportunity to share concerns and ideas for the company. Encouraging and appreciative regular leader communications and team activities and discussion can also contribute to an overall positive work culture.
  • Open lines of communication. An O.C. Tanner study from early in the COVID-19 pandemic found that organizations that increased transparency had a 75 percent increase in employee satisfaction and a 17 percent increase in the likelihood of employee retention.
  • Give employees autonomy. “With great autonomy comes great psychological safety—another important ingredient to building workplace culture,” says the O.C. Tanner guide. “When employees feel psychologically safe at work, there is a 154 percent increase in the incidence of great work.”
  • Meet with employees regularly. Scheduling one-on-one conversations between employees and leaders where both parties can speak openly leads to more engaged, motivated employees.
Even in customer service jobs, managers can maintain a happy and energized workforce by discussing factors that might cause burnout during regular meetings.

Ruben Ramos | iStock

2 baristas laughing and having fun at work
Even in customer service jobs, managers can maintain a happy and energized workforce by discussing factors that might cause burnout during regular meetings.

Ruben Ramos | iStock

Bend Before Breaking
“European studies show that people who have a better work/life balance perform better and are more effective in the workplace,” says Berliner. And a recent joint study by the University of Minnesota and Massachusetts Institute of Technology backs this up. According to the study’s results, published in January 2016, a flexible work schedule lowers stress and employee burnout while also increasing job satisfaction.

The study was conducted at a Fortune 500 company over a 12-month period and included 700 employees. Study participants who had flexible work options reported higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced levels of burnout and stress.

Those who participated reported being able to spend more time with family and having more control over their work schedules.

Aware of the benefits, Global Credit Union has implemented more flexibility for its employees. “Like most organizations over the last few years, we had to shift the way we viewed work. This resulted in nearly 70 percent of our workforce participating in a hybrid or fully remote work environment,” says Gabler. “We believe this allows employees to have an improved work/life balance, more efficient use of their time, higher productivity, and a way to mitigate burnout. This telework arrangement has been incredibly beneficial for the organization as well as the employees.”

Flexible work arrangements can include flex-time, where employees work a full day but can shift or vary their hours, such as working part of the day in the early morning and part later in the afternoon or early evening; working reduced or part-time hours, where employees work fewer than the standard 37.5 to 40 hour week; a compressed work week, where employees work longer days in order to have more days off; remote or telework, where people do some or all of their work from home; and job sharing, where two or more employees split a position and duties.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, offering these kinds of flexible work arrangements can help businesses better attract, retain, and motivate employees and lead to reduced employee absenteeism as well as increased job satisfaction, energy, creativity, and the ability to handle stress.

“Letting your workers take time to deal is important,” says Berliner. “The healthy work/life balance thing is critical to adapting to each other’s schedules and understanding. At the end of the day, the majority of us are not working in life-or-death situations, and people can be accommodated. Recognize all of the things people might need and open yourself up to that as an employer.”

Accommodations may be as small as a standing desk or yoga ball chair for someone with back issues. “All of these little things demonstrate to your team that you care and it’s important and that they matter, and that makes a big difference,” Berliner says.

Perks That Work
In addition to things like flex-time options, employers need to provide employees with other benefits, such as parental leave, professional development, educational reimbursement, and financial wellness tools. Supports like these can increase employee satisfaction, thereby reducing burnout.

“You’re the one leading the show, so you should hopefully have the wherewithal to extend comfort and productivity things,” Berliner says of managers. “If you’re an employer, offering leave and health insurance and other benefits for employees can really show them that they matter. However you can make it work, my recommendation is to try to build that into your realm. You’re basically doing anything you can to help avoid any undue stress to your employees.”

Make well-being a part of the company’s culture, says the Gallup report. “Gallup’s research has found five essential elements that differentiate thriving lives from those that are struggling or suffering.” These elements include career, community, physical, financial, and social well-being. And the company suggests that companies use those five elements as a science-based structure for benefits programs and offerings.

Key to preventing or combating burnout in the workplace is making sure that those in charge of employees can recognize its signs, and this means providing education. The Gallup report says, “Managers are your best solution for burnout when they take time to learn what’s behind burnout and are open to changing how they manage their teams. Taking ownership of their role in preventing burnout shows they are fully committed to helping every employee excel.”

Managers should be trained to recognize burnout factors and to examine how their management style could mitigate or potentially cause burnout. Integrate conversations on burnout into workplace meetings and other discussions, where managers can reflect on common scenarios and share best practices.

Creating an inviting workspace is another thing employers can do to help prevent employees from experiencing burnout. According to the Gallup report, “Organizations can reduce environmental accelerators of burnout by providing quiet, comfortable workspaces where employees can easily immerse themselves in their individual work, and organizations should be intentional and strategic when creating the workspaces that employees will use for collaboration and meetings.” The three office features that employees want most, based on Gallup research, are all interrelated: privacy when they need it, personal workspace, and their own office.

To make workplaces more inviting, employers can reduce noise and interruptions, provide inviting collaboration spaces, and audit workspace lighting.

While there’s no way to prevent 100 percent of employee burnout, employers who take these steps can mitigate many of the causes and create happier and healthier working environments. “It’s also beneficial for organizations that seek sustained, long-term productivity, retention and growth,” says the Gallup report. “Ultimately, a workplace where employees can feel and perform their best is a win-win-win—for the company, its workers, and its customers.”